Testosterone is a natural hormone, but it is also made by drug makers and marketed to be used to treat men struggling with symptoms caused by low levels. Both men and women naturally have testosterone, but it is more important in men and testosterone treatments are used only for men. True low testosterone is known as male hypogonadism and supplementing the hormone can help men feel better and get relief from symptoms like fatigue and sexual dysfunction.
The problem with testosterone therapy is that it is often used when it is not really needed. This is problematic because there are a number of side effects of supplementing testosterone that range from mood swings and high blood pressure to prostate cancer and heart attacks. Companies that make testosterone therapy products have been accused of pushing them on consumers who don’t really need them and causing more men to suffer from these side effects.
Testosterone Therapy and Male Hypogonadism
Testosterone is an androgen, or a natural male sex hormone. It is produced in men more than women, although everyone has some amount of the hormone. In men, testosterone is responsible for the development of the reproductive organs as well as for healthy bones, muscle mass, and the production of red blood cells, facial hair, body hair, and sperm.
As men age, the amount of testosterone produced in the body begins to decline. This is normal, but some men will experience an abnormal decline that triggers difficult symptoms. This is called male hypogonadism and it may be caused by infections, medication, chemotherapy, physical injuries, or rare genetic conditions. Symptoms of hypogonadism in men include loss of body and facial hair, infertility, erectile dysfunction, low libido, fatigue, enlarged breast tissue, loss of bone density, and hot flashes.
Testosterone therapy is used to treat male hypogonadism, although it is also important to find the underlying cause and to treat that as well. There are several different brands of testosterone made by different drug companies. Gels that are applied to the skin include Testim and AndroGel. Androderm is a patch that delivers testosterone and there are also injectable forms.
Over-Prescription of Testosterone
For men truly suffering from hypogonadism, testosterone therapy is an important treatment. It provides relief from symptoms that is worth the side effects for most men. Treatment using testosterone for natural loss of the hormone that comes with aging is not always worth the side effects. In spite of the risks, many drug companies engaged in aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing to men who do not have hypogonadism, only the decline in production of testosterone that is normal with aging.
Many men suffered serious side effects when the really didn’t need testosterone therapy because of this aggressive advertising. Some companies have even faced lawsuits over it, particularly AbbVie, the maker of AndroGel. Men who suffered heart attacks sued for damages. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has also taken steps to warn patients and doctors that testosterone therapy is not to be used for men with age-related testosterone decline.
Common Testosterone Side Effects
Some of the more common side effects of using testosterone therapy are not serious and can be tolerated by most men using the therapy for true hypogonadism. These include high blood pressure, an increased production of red blood cells, mood swings, and skin irritation at the site of gel or patch application.
Prostate Side Effects
Some of the potential side effects of testosterone therapy are much more serious. Testosterone is known to increase the levels of prostate specific antigen, which is associated with prostate cancer. It also can worsen an already enlarged prostate. Signs that this is happening include difficulty urinating, frequent urination, urinating more frequently at night, and a weak flow of urine.
The risk of developing prostate cancer is significant for patients using testosterone. The spike in levels of the hormone is associated with a doubled risk for developing cancer of the prostate gland. More than one study has backed up this association, but exactly why it happens is not known. The risk of this side effect is not considered to be worth the benefits of using testosterone for natural aging. For men with hypogonadism, however, it may be worth the risk, but should be accompanied by regular screenings for prostate cancer.
Another very serious potential side effect of testosterone therapy is that it can cause blood clots, which can be deadly. This could be a result of testosterone triggering the production of more red blood cells and bigger blood cells, which may thicken the blood and lead to more clotting. Regardless of the reason, the increased risk of blood clots means an increased risk for heart attack and stroke.
The risk for clots has been seen in studies and reports of adverse events. In one study, which was published in 2013, older men with hypogonadism receiving testosterone therapy were experiencing more adverse outcomes, including heart attack and stroke, as compared to a control group. Another study was stopped early to protect the participants because there were so many heart problems.
Other Serious Side Effects
The risks of an enlarged prostate, prostate cancer and the development of blood clots are the most troubling testosterone side effects, but there are others that have been seen less commonly. One of these is sleep apnea. This sleeping condition occurs when air flow stops during sleep because of some type of restriction in the airways. It can lead to heart problems, stroke, and even death.
Hormonal imbalances can be triggered by too much extra testosterone. When the natural hormones in the body become imbalanced it can lead to uncomfortable and even dangerous symptoms like severe mood swings and gynecomastia, or the enlargement of the breasts. Men may even experience signs similar to puberty, like changes in hair growth and acne.
The side effects that are possible with testosterone therapy are troubling. If you experienced some of the more serious side effects, like a blood clot, you may have a case to make against the manufacturer, especially if you did not really have hypogonadism. Let a lawyer advise you on your next steps.